October 23, 2012

Core Strength Training for Team Leaders

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March 2009 Issue | Volume 35 Number 2 | Page 60


Core Strength Training for Team Leaders

To achieve peak -performance, teams need managers who have the core competencies to lead effectively. So shouldn’t firms focus more on helping their lawyers build the strengths needed to succeed in these types of roles? Effective training works on strengthening multiple competencies at the same time

As one of my New Year’s resolutions, I decided to get into better shape. But where to begin? It seemed overwhelming so I sought the help of a personal trainer, who started me on core strength training. This type of training, I was told, can greatly enhance a person’s physical well-being and performance. Apparently, our core muscles affect how everything else works, in terms of balance and efficiency. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to realize that this is an analogy for a lot of things, including management.

Follow my analysis for a moment. If a strong core enables the rest of the body to perform well, then conversely, if the core is weak, the entire body’s performance diminishes. Let’s look at management this way. Matters are often run by “middle managers”—meaning the junior partners and senior associates who are assigned responsibility for making the trains run on time in given projects. Let’s look at a typical example.

John, a fifth-year associate in the litigation practice of a large firm, is overseeing a case that requires supervising other team members. A typical day for John includes answering e-mails from the client’s general counsel, reporting to the senior partner in charge of the matter, checking on the lawyers responsible for document review, and supervising the production of several pleadings. John, too, is working on a brief. In managing from the middle, he is tasked with the case team’s assignments and timetables, leading others to peak performance, earning the confidence of the partners and the client, and supervising and mentoring the less-experienced team members.

Playing this role is difficult and taxing. And without training that focuses on John as the core of the team, how will the other players perform? His performance will affect the entire team’s performance, either positively or negatively. So, just like my personal trainer’s emphasis on building the strength of the physical core, firms should put the same emphasis on building strengths for “middle managers,” who essentially function as the core of their teams.

Identifying the Middle Manager’s Core Muscles

Just as our physical cores are made up of several major muscles that must work in tandem, there are several core competencies that a manager must have and use in tandem to perform effectively. They include the following:

  • Relationship building
  • Establishing of authority
  • Knowledge and skills mastery
  • Ability to gain others’ confidence
  • Judgment
  • Initiative
  • Accountability

Relationship building tops the list as the critical basis from which to lead others. Building solid relationships is about establishing trust and mutual respect, which by its nature requires effective communication. If our associate John doesn’t invest in the communication needed to get to know his team—and for them to get to know him—he has made his role much more difficult. Absent trust, mutual respect and effective communication, others are much less likely to understand and deliver on his requests, especially when the going gets tough, as it often does. And, of course, it will be almost impossible to establish the authority needed to have the team perform successfully. Establishing authority as a middle manager can be complicated, but it’s vital to getting things done.

The other competencies come from this foundation of communication, trust, respect and authority. Clearly, knowledge and skills mastery are necessary to leading others. They are also necessary to gaining others’ confidence, which calls for understanding the needs of the situation and the steps needed to accomplish client goals. Judgment comes from a willingness to learn from experience and taking that experience to the next level. Initiative includes the ability to look ahead, along with the desire to take on more responsibility and seek greater challenges. And accountability means that the team manager takes personal responsibility for delivering a quality product.

Building the Competencies: How the Firm Can Help

Let’s face it, few lawyers receive strategic guidance or training in developing leadership skills—and yet when they are put into the manager’s role, their firms expect them to perform at peak levels. Some may have good role models to learn from, but for the most part, many firms simply expect their lawyers to “wing it” when managing teams. This, not surprisingly, causes immense frustration for the untrained manager, as well as for his or her supervisees and, in turn, it affects the team’s performance and work product.

It’s clear that an emphasis on teaching management skills to those moving into these roles is essential. So how can firms support their lawyers in developing the core competencies of leadership? Here are a few ideas.

  • Building knowledge and skills mastery. An excellent first step is to have new team leaders complete a self-assessment regarding their existing strengths and skills, limitations and experience gaps. They may want to gather feedback from their supervisors and supervisees to round out the picture, too. Using this information, they can then draft a development plan that incorporates specific ways in which they can maximize their strengths, leverage their limitations and fill in experience gaps. A supervising partner should review this plan, providing feedback and suggesting steps that will help the lawyer accomplish each development goal.
  • Gaining the confidence of others. As stated earlier, communicating effectively and demonstrating knowledge are critical to making people feel confident in their team leader’s abilities. It is also essential to understand the roles and issues of the various players involved in the particular project. Here, firms can help project leaders by encouraging them to understand clients’ and partners’ needs as well as associates’ and staff’s strengths and limitations, so that all of these can be effectively addressed in achieving the team’s goals. Certainly, when problems arise, team managers should discuss them with the supervising partner—however, they will want to have possible solutions in mind to present to their supervisors as well.
  • Developing good judgment. It is likewise important to encourage project leaders to learn from mistakes—their own and others’ as well. Even in the midst of chaos, they need to take time to listen intently and process all the information thoroughly. And supervising partners should also be sure to encourage them to ask questions, solicit others’ ideas and regularly test assumptions. Good judgment, after all, never grows in isolation.
  • Showing initiative. A good leader thinks beyond simply what has been assigned and takes a broader view by considering the range of things that could happen as the project proceeds. In this regard, it can be invaluable to new managers to have partners discuss their experiences with certain types of matters and other projects. Training new managers to anticipate the variables in their projects allows them to take initiative and find their own solutions whenever possible.
  • Being accountable. While team managers should delegate as much as possible, they ultimately retain the responsibility for delivering a quality product. They should share praise as much as possible, while always owning their mistakes. (Or, as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.”) Holding this level of accountability requires effectively managing the performance of everyone on the team, which especially means knowing how to give proper feedback. Accordingly, every firm will be well served by giving its team leaders training in how to give effective feedback, which is one of the most important tasks of their role.

The bottom line is that if we look at those who manage from the middle as the core of a team, we can see that giving these individuals all the training, coaching and mentoring they need to be successful is crucial to delivering top-notch services to clients. So assess what your firm is currently doing to support these individuals and create a plan to help them develop these core competencies.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).